14 Digital Literacy

David Squires

Between Making and Integrating Digital Technology

Advocacy for digital literacy often falls along a spectrum from making to integrating computing technologies. We can see this tendency in the excitement over maker spaces and technology integration. Pedagogically, both have their value, as articulated in the representative statements from Educause and Edutopia:

“Makerspaces allow students to take control of their own learning as they take ownership of projects they have not just designed but defined.”[1]
“Technology, when integrated into the curriculum, revolutionizes the learning process. More and more studies show that technology integration in the curriculum improves students’ learning processes and outcomes.”[2]

If maker spaces let students become better producers, technology integration lets them become savvier consumers. While maker spaces emphasize student agency and technical creativity, technology integration emphasizes student awareness and technical proficiency. Both, however, come with a high price tag, making them unfeasible options for many instructors. Creating Open Educational Resources (OERs) with students offers one possible synthesis for making and integrating at a scale that Paul Fyfe calls “mid-sized digital pedagogy.”[3] Working with students on an open textbook promotes collaboration with affordable tools while also letting students stay focused on course content.

When students begin to produce open textbooks, they necessarily delve into the subject area of the course. The task demands at the outset a level of systematic thinking that course materials assume in advance. Textbook authors and college professors usually take responsibility for course design and so set the parameters for student learning. By contrast, creating open textbooks as a class project invites professors and students to enter into a collaborative process for deciding what content to feature and how to organize it. One of the most challenging—but also energizing—aspects of creating OERs in my experience came at the beginning of the project when students divided the chapter topics for a textbook on social media. They had to ask critical questions about what counts as comprehensive knowledge and how best to sequence learning from the fundamental to the more specialized. Before ever worrying about software for layout and publishing, students immersed themselves in the secondary literature and research materials. Importantly, they drew on previously published open textbooks where possible, which pushed the collaborative experience beyond the walls of our classroom to a wider academic community. Students realized quickly that they had a responsibility to both the authors who went before them and the readers who might use their textbook.

Because I teach digital cultural studies my courses can unify digital literacy instruction with course content, perhaps more than other subjects. For my purposes, having students create an open textbook on social media encouraged them to explore aspects of everyday culture that they often overlook. For instance, as a class they decided that the textbook should include a chapter on the terms of service for using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other popular social media platforms. That decision required them to study seemingly arcane details about computer fraud as well as details about their own (often eroded) rights as content creators. The section on copyright limitations echoed the discussions we had in advance about Creative Commons licensing and the various motivations underlying the move toward OERs. The exploration of terms of service left students with a new awareness for their own labor as content producers on platforms designed, in large part, for mass consumption. At the same time, writing textbook material let them reimagine their role in class as not simply knowledge consumers but also as knowledge producers. The goal of turning college students into knowledge producers is not unique to digital literacy curricula, of course, but digital literacy can help achieve that goal with a critical eye toward the broader context of content creation under commercially oriented copyright regimes.

Concerns over copyright and proprietary content extend to choosing a desktop publisher and distribution platform. Many of my students need to learn Adobe tools such as InDesign for professional reasons. Given the cultural studies focus on my courses, however, we picked a free, open source web application called Scalar. Scalar was designed to feature academic writing with media rich content. It lent itself to our textbook prototype because it works on the book model. As a digital tool, however, it also takes advantage of all that interactive media affords, including the ability to feature and annotate images, video, sound, maps, and almost any web-based material with a stable URL. That gives Scalar an advantage over PDF publications, which my students exploited to incorporate primary examples from around the web, especially YouTube, in their original form. Admittedly, Scalar creates a learning curve that some students find frustrating. For instance, the platform lets users add media by linking it to specific parts of the text, rather than just dropping it between paragraphs. Although more complex, the benefit of creating media links is that the written analysis has a direct relationship to the object of study, making critical reading skills manifest in the organization of digital content. The added complexity encourages students to work outside their comfort zone as they think about the relationship between digital media and their own writing.

As a platform, Scalar exemplifies the synthesis of making and integrating digital media. Students become publishers in the process of writing their Scalar book even as they practice integrating digital media from various web sources. The assignment works to develop comprehensive mastery over the course material while students also ask critical questions about which materials get selected for study and which get excluded. Similarly, they can ask which tools become the defaults for learning and which get marginalized. One of my students wondered aloud during in-class discussion why textbooks have become a dominant tool from primary to higher education. It’s a good question, although not one we were able to answer in that class. Having asked, however, the student offered us an expanded sense of literacy that includes working with a wealth of media technologies in addition to reading books and writing papers.

That broad view of literacy needs full consideration in an age when we’re faced with choosing among an endless number of applications to solve any given problem, especially when many of those applications will threaten our rights as content creators and our privacy as consumers.

  1. Educause Learning Initiative, “7 Things You Should Know about Makerspaces," Educause, https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ELI7095.pdf.
  2. “Why Do We Need Technology Integration?," Edutopia, November 5, 2007, https://www.edutopia.org/technology-integration-guide-importance.
  3. Paul Fyfe, “Mid-Sized Digital Pedagogy,” Debates in the Digital Humanities (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/62.


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A Guide to Making Open Textbooks with Students Copyright © 2017 by David Squires is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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